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Space is Critical — It’s Time We Act Like It

By Samuel S. Visner, Edward Swallow | January 11, 2022

      Photo: Thinkstock

      When Russia launched a missile to destroy one of their own satellites in November 2021, it left behind 1,500 trackable pieces, plus thousands that were too small to detect. This irresponsible action leaves a debris field that’s hazardous to space navigation in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), likely for decades. It also sends a collective shudder through the membership of the Space Information Sharing and Analysis Center (Space ISAC)—and probably every reader of this publication.

      America’s preeminence in space is critical to our role as a global great power, but we don’t currently protect space systems well enough. Although there is broad recognition generally that our nation faces significant challenges to the security and resilience of the 16 critical and business infrastructures, space systems and their related supply chains and technologies aren’t even on the list.

      All countries share space, so no one nation can make unilateral rules. While other nations have tested anti-satellite weapons, the Russian “test” was egregious: Littering an orbit with a debris field harms all nations, including their own. It not only serves as a potential military threat but also as a vivid reminder of just how dependent we all are on space and the need to establish norms.

      Almost every National Critical Function depends on space systems: Large farms rely on navigation for their agricultural machinery, as does the transportation of people, food, and products nationwide. Space is also essential to our country’s communications backbone, including the internet.

      Additionally, space systems offer new and expanding opportunities for technological innovation, communication, Earth resources observation and management, manufacturing, mining, travel, and colonization of the Moon or Mars. This dependency can only increase as new constellations of tens of thousands of satellites provide global 5G coverage and are connected to global cloud and smart infrastructures serving billions of Internet of Things devices.

      Clearly, our adversaries see the vulnerabilities of space systems as a way to undermine our global great power status. Russia has reportedly tested GPS jammers against U.S. space systems, and China tested a hypersonic missile in LEO last summer, demonstrating its prowess in space. India has also tested capabilities that threaten space systems.

      Nation-states are not the only actors who threaten space systems. Many of the approximately 4,000 satellites currently in Low-Earth Orbit are vulnerable to cyberattacks (including ransomware) from a wide variety of bad actors as well as nation-states. These adversaries, large and small, can potentially take control of satellites, corrupt their data, or even put them on a collision course with national-security satellites — possibly causing an international incident.

      Consider the implications when those 4,000 satellites grow to 100,000 by 2030, as some predict.

      Congressmen Ted Lieu, D-Calif., and Ken Calvert, R-Calif., have cosponsored legislation that calls on the executive branch to designate space systems, services, and technology as the 17th sector of U.S. critical infrastructure. Others are considering a list of more narrowly defined “systematically critical infrastructure” sectors.

      In addition, in December 2021, the Biden administration released the “United States Space Priorities Framework” (USSPF). The framework clearly states that space activities are essential to our way of life and property and calls for U.S. leadership in establishing rules and norms in space operations. Specifically, “The United States will protect space-related critical infrastructure and strengthen the security of the U.S. space industrial base.”

      Our position at Space ISAC is to call it what you will — but the U.S. needs to define space systems as “critical” in whatever way necessary to provide policies, initiatives, and programs to strengthen space systems security and resilience. The USSPF sends a clear signal of this administration’s focus on exactly what we’re calling for: Recognizing space as critical infrastructure.

      To achieve this, here are our recommendations for U.S. government and business leaders:

      Recognize the critical importance of our space systems — and make our position known to allies, partners, competitors, and adversaries. We must harden space systems and be prepared to respond to and deter attacks.

      Create a national and international information-sharing architecture for the security and resiliency of space systems, ranging from engineering best practices to operational threat intelligence. Space ISAC made notable strides in sharing unclassified information, and we need to extend our information-sharing in the classified domain. In addition, the U.S. needs to leverage Space ISAC to launch an effort encompassing the full range of national and international space industry players, from manufacturing and launch services to ground and in-orbit operations.

      Establish an interagency, federal risk management structure with responsibility for space systems security and resilience that reports (at least initially) to the vice president.

      Take the lead in building international consensus regarding the security of space systems and reinforcing existing norms against attacks on those systems. Article 7 of the Outer Space Treaty could be amended to make explicit prohibitions of cyberattacks against space systems. If other countries are not prepared to accept these changes, the U.S. should signal our resolve with a robust policy statement and be clear in making other parties understand our commitment to respond to perceived hostile acts. This will strengthen the security and resilience of our own systems.

      From the battlefield to the internet, to the food on our marketplace shelves, the nation critically depends on space systems, which are all too vulnerable to threats. Our dependency is only growing, and reducing our vulnerability is up to all of us. It is time to treat space systems like the critical assets they truly are.

      Edward Swallow, left, is senior vice president and chief financial officer at The Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit that operates a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) for the U.S. space enterprise.

      Samuel Visner, right, is a technical fellow and former director of the National Cybersecurity FFRDC at MITRE.

      They are also founding members of the Space Information Sharing and Analysis Center board of directors. To learn more, watch the “Space as Critical Infrastructure” video, which took place at the Aspen Security Forum in November 2021.